When Sarah McKelvain of Springdale placed an online order in early February for copies of the birth certificates of everyone in her five-person family, she expected them to arrive in plenty of time for the family to obtain passports for a trip out of the country in mid-June.
“I’ve ordered them for my kids to enroll in kindergarten before, and they usually sent them within a few days,” said McKelvain, explaining that the family needed new copies because the old ones had been misplaced. “I just expected that to be the experience.”
It wasn’t. Because of a massive backlog at the Arkansas Department of Health, the order wasn’t processed and shipped until last week. The delay didn’t force the family to cancel the trip, but only because McKelvain’s father, who lives in Little Rock, had gone to the agency’s Little Rock office and place an in-person order that was processed the same day.
Ironically, McKelvain had paid $20 extra for express delivery of her online order.
“It seems kind of stupid because it came six months later,” she said.
Thousands of others have had similar experiences.
“Currently, we are 11,000 requests behind in processing requests for vital records,” Department of Health spokeswoman Marisha DiCarlo said in response to an inquiry from the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.
DiCarlo said the agency provides same-day processing to people who present their applications in person at its Little Rock office, and applications submitted through the mail are processed in four to six weeks — a typical time frame for this region, a survey conducted for this report has shown. But online requests are a different matter.
“The backlog is primarily with these online orders, so they may still take longer,” DiCarlo said.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Governor Hutchinson, said in an interview that “the governor is aware of the problem, and the delays need to be addressed. It’s not the kind of customer service the state should provide.”
“The Department of Health is working on this, the governor is working on this, and [ADH Director Dr. Nate] Smith is working on this diligently, and we hope the situation will be resolved in the near future,” Davis said.
Online requests for vital records in Arkansas are made through VitalChek, a private company that has partnered with Arkansas and nearly every other state to handle such requests. DiCarlo did not estimate how long the Health Department is taking to process online applications, but the VitalChek website estimates the processing time for each state and U.S. territory where it does business.
The average estimated processing time nationwide is 9 or 10 days, or slightly faster if the customer pays for express delivery.
In contrast, Arkansas has an estimated processing time of 75-90 days without express delivery, or about double the estimated time of the second-slowest state, Rhode Island, where the processing time without express delivery is 30-45 days, according to VitalChek.
With express delivery, Arkansas’s estimated processing time is 60-75 days, according to the company’s website. That’s far shorter than the six months McKelvain had to wait, but she said that back in February she didn’t even get a warning of a possible 75-day wait: At that time the company was estimating the state’s processing time at 17-21 days.
Government websites of all the states surrounding Arkansas give estimates of the processing times for vital records, but as of Sunday the website of the Arkansas Department of Health offered no estimate, just an apology.
“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience to anyone who has had a delay in receiving their certificate. The number of requests we have received this year has significantly increased and we are addressing this increased volume with a limited number of staff,” a statement on the website read.
The statement advised people to contact the agency by email at email@example.com if they experience a delay in receiving a certificate.
DiCarlo said the health department became aware of a backlog in the spring and at that time began monitoring progress toward reducing it.
“When sufficient progress was not being made, we hired a consultant to identify the source of the backlog,” she said. “We have recognized how significant the backlog was in the past 90 days. We are taking steps to reduce the backlog of requests, and to streamline our process moving forward.”
The consultant, Jerry Pack, is a former chief information officer for the agency. He was hired in June at $44.47 an hour and is expected to be on the job for about another 30 days.
DiCarlo said Pack has identified inefficiencies, including points at which staff was required to enter information twice. She said the agency is redesigning its systems to allow staff to enter the information only once.
Staffing has been an issue because of high turnover in the 14 positions responsible for issuing birth and death certificates. Over the past six months, the agency has averaged five vacancies a month in certificate processing.
“These are entry-level positions that typically have high turnover, since people often are moving on to higher-paying positions,” DiCarlo said.
DiCarlo said the agency received permission to expedite its hiring process for its vital records office, which has a total of 42 positions, and as a result all of the positions are now filled. She also said a new state pay plan the legislature and Governor Hutchinson approved this year boosted the pay for the certificate-processing positions, which is expected to help with recruitment and retention.
The ADH also has brought in workers from other areas of the agency, hired temporary workers and allowed staff to work overtime on the backlog. Since March, the agency has paid a little over $2,440 in overtime.
The reason for the increase in requests is unknown. DiCarlo said officials have “wondered” whether it is related to the federal Real ID Act, which sets new standards for the identification needed to fly effective in January 2018, but she said the agency has been too busy working to reduce the backlog to investigate possible causes for the spike in applications.
Cody McDonell, spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said his agency has not seen requests for vital records jump this year compared to last year.
“There are times of the year when it spikes” — including tax season and back-to-school time — “but we haven’t seen an abnormally large spike this year,” McDonell said.
Heath Carpenter of Searcy inadvertently tested the comparative processing times of Arkansas and Florida when he ordered birth certificates from both states about a month ago.
“One of my children was born in Florida, the other three were born in Arkansas,” he said.
“Somewhere along the way, moving or whatever, I couldn’t find three of the kids’ birth certificates, and I got online and ordered one from Florida. It was in my mailbox the next day.”
Carpenter also requested birth certificates for two of his Arkansas-born children, but a month later he still has not received them.
“If I had known that you could just drive to Little Rock and get it, I would have done it,” he said. “They charged me … more for the online option.”
Also still waiting for birth certificates is Katie Ransom of Springdale, who became the legal guardian of her two former stepdaughters earlier this year. She paid for copies of the girls’ birth certificates, with express delivery, in mid-April.
“Right now I don’t have anything to legally prove the identity of these children,” she said. “It’s extremely frustrating, and I feel quite ripped off, frankly, because I paid for [the certificates] up front.”
Ransom said it seems strange that in the age of the internet the health department can only process orders quickly if they are placed in person in Little Rock.
“If I can search marriage, birth and death records for the last 100 years online, then why in the world can some county clerk not get me a certified copy?” she said.
Carpenter said the system is unfair to people who do not live in the central part of the state.
“People who live in the Delta, Hope, who live anywhere else other than Little Rock, [many of them] poor people, they don’t have access to drive out to Little Rock for a birth certificate,” he said.
DiCarlo said the health department is addressing that issue. The agency has accelerated a plan to allow people to make in-person requests for vital records at its local health units, and expects to make this service available at 12 units around the state in 30-60 days, she said.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.